Overwhelming apprehension is the feeling I had walking into the theatre for the Americanized remake of one of my top 10 favorite movies from 2014…Force Majeure. Sure, it’s common practice for U.S. filmmakers to farm international cinema for “new” projects, but when they mess with the really good ones, I can’t help but feel nervous to the point of dread. A sliver of hope existed since this new version, Downhill, was co-written (along with Jesse Armstrong, creator of “Succession,” and Oscar-nominated for In the Loop) and co-directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the creative forces behind The Way, Way Back (2013).
Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell star as married couple Billie and Pete. Along with their two teenage sons, they are on an Austrian ski trip meant to help Pete get through grieving his father’s death, and bring the family closer together. If you have seen the original or the trailer, you know what happens next. Pete’s reaction to a near-catastrophic event creates a divide between him and the family…especially Billie, who is left shaken. This part is all quite similar to the original film, yet this version is different in so many ways.
Casting two brilliant comedic performers in the lead sends a strong signal that humor will play a role, and that the exceptional gravitas from filmmaker Rube Ostlund’s Force Majeure will be softened somewhat. Both of those points hold true. However, surprisingly, this remake manages to still generate some of the shaken-to-the-core emotions that come from having trust broken in such a startling manner. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is especially strong here, and carries a much heavier load than Mr. Ferrell. As she is balancing her shock, frustration, and anger, while still attending to their equally shaken boys, Ferrell is relegated to spending much of the film wearing a wounded puppy look as he attempts to move on without addressing the issue.
Adding to the comedy elements are Zoe Chao (“The Comeback”) and Zach Woods (“The Office”) as Pete’s friends who get drawn into the fracas. Miranda Otto takes a break from her usually dramatic roles to play Charlotte, a wacky resort employee whose personality is a bit out of step with normalcy; although her zaniness succeeds in preventing the weight of the event from crushing Billie. Fans of the original will recognize Kristofer Hivju, who plays a resort security advisor this time. Another difference is that the kids (Julian Grey, Ammon Jacob Ford) play a bigger role in family dynamics and fallout.
It’s clear that filmmakers Faxon and Rash set out to purposefully make a more mainstream, accessible movie than the Swedish version. The film remains effective at generating conversation about survival instinct and protecting one’s loved ones. It should be mentioned that this is not a typical Will Ferrell movie, and anyone expecting Frank the Tank, may only be pleased with one brief scene. Instead, this is about a man coming to grips with how his actions affected his family, and even his view of himself.